As my oldest son Shemer is now halfway through first grade, I have been able to get a taste of the Israeli school system which has no separation of religion and state. Not only is religion taught in the public schools, but the schools are segregated by religion. Within the Jewish school system there are religious and non-religious schools. We decided to send our children to religious schools and tried to find one that was progressive and pluralistic.
Halfway through the school year, Shemer can read and his math skills are progressing nicely. While it is evident that he is learning, it is also evident that he is being sucked into an overloaded system and his individuality and his excitement for learning is being muted. Part of this is due to a difference between the culture in which I was raised in the United States, which celebrates individuality, and Israeli culture which promotes the collective. Shemer will be with the same children throughout elementary school, many of them will be in youth groups together, and then may go into the army together. In a society founded largely as a socialist collective with communal settlements the only way to survive, Israelis feel a very close kinship with each other. We are family.
We share not only a country, but a heritage dating back 5,000 years. The community bonds in Israel are very strong, as the Talmud teaches us, All Israel is responsible for one another. This communal heritage is evident as Shemer proceeds through his rites of passage.
Now that he and his classmates have learned to read, they, like all first graders attending religious schools in Israel, receive their very own siddur (prayerbook) in a special ceremony. While the parents decorate their child’s siddur ahead of time and write a special note that is pasted inside, the children prepare songs and dances that will be performed in front of their proud parents. With the presentation of his siddur, each child joins the heritage connecting generations.
Living in Jerusalem, this event takes on even more meaning. Unlike most students, when Shemer received his siddur, he was not participating in a ceremony at his school. He, together with my wife and I, along with about three hundred first-graders and their parents traveled ten minutes from our home to Jerusalem’s Old City. There, we were lead through the winding alleys of the Jewish Quarter by educators dressed in costumes, playing the parts of our ancient ancestors speaking to the children about prayer. Of all the places where a Jew can pray, Shemer received his siddur in Israel, in the Holy City, Jerusalem. Every Jew In the Diaspora, faces Israel when they pray. Within Israel, they face Jerusalem and within Jerusalem, Jews direct themselves towards the Western Wall. After the presentation ceremony, parents escorted their children to that central place in Jewish prayer.
Shemer took a note with a prayer that he had prepared ahead of time and very carefully selected the right spot in the Wall where he placed it, nestled in the cracks of the ancient stones that had once surrounded the Temple. He searched and found a niche where it would be hidden and protected so that it would stay there with his prayer for many years to come.
I made aliyah feeling that a part of me was foreign in America. However, I also knew that I would always be an immigrant in Israel. My hope was that my children would feel at home in Israel in a way that I would never feel anywhere in the world.
After receiving his siddur, as Shemer knelt at the Wall tucking his prayer in-between the ancient stones with such care and attentiveness, I understood that his connection to this special place of ours has already become a part of his being. My children’s roots are planted in this Land. he culture that surrounds them here is theirs in a much deeper way than American culture could ever be mine. Their calender, liturgy and culture began here thousands of years ago. It is a culture that is so deep, with so many layers and it belongs to them 100% as Jews and as Israelis. For them, for instance, Maccabee can be the name of a sports team whose cards they collect or the name that dates back thousands of years which for generations their ancestors have remembered during Hanukkah. They recognize it as the national heroes who rededicated the Temple, a place that they know and feel connected to fro their own personal experiences.
As Shemer received his siddur, written in his language, presented to him in his city, connecting him to his people, through him I took another step towards returning home.